Friday, January 29, 2010

What is the Purpose of Diversity?

#bloggerscircle I have recently joined the RSA Bloggers' Circle, which encourages me to pick a random blogpost from the circle to discuss on my own blog. So here goes ...



Simon Cooke, a Tory Councillor from a pretty little village in Yorkshire, complains about the triumph of groupthink: diversity. Simon dislikes the political agenda that he associates with this concept, and he believes it distorts decisions, policy and activity. However, he fears that criticizing the concept of diversity will be met with ad hominem accusations, as if the defenders of "diversity" regard it as such an obvious good that only sexists, racists and homophobes could possibly object to it.


An initial objection to the concept of "diversity" is that it defines our identity in terms of the groups we belong to, whether by choice or circumstance. But that is just what people do all the time. Simon introduces himself as a Tory politician, in other words providing a preliminary sketch of his own identity in terms of a particular affiliation, so he can't expect me to put that out of my mind while I'm reading his blog. And if I see a group photo of Simon and his fellow councillors, I'm probably going to notice whether they all look similar or different.

But that's just it. Diversity is often perceived in terms of a visual image - what we might call the "imaginary". Does the group look diverse? Do we have the happy smiling black person, the young woman, the older woman, the wheelchair user - like the stock photographs in any corporate brochure or website? Or do we have a bunch of dead white males, as in this notorious picture from the launch of Microsoft Vista (via Seth Godin).

Wownow
Ramin Talaie/Bloomberg News/New York Times

When we see people who look the same, we may expect them to think the same; this expectation may be fair, or it may be merely a projection of our own assumptions. Even if I didn't know who the men in this picture were, I could easily imagine them sitting together in a bar, arguing robustly for their own interests but against a background of common beliefs and attitudes.

The fact is that images matter. We see the pictures of David Cameron, Boris Johnson, George Osborne and their university chums posing in top hats or in hunting apparel (image search: Bullingdon), and these pictures appear to tell us something simple and obvious about who these people are and where their loyalties lie, even if the truth is far more complex than that. A black man in the White House has enormous importance as an image, encouraging black people and other minorities around the world to feel that they have a chance too, while causing some white Americans to feel that their categories have been upset. Images of diversity, or lack of diversity, convey important messages of opportunity or threat, hope or despair. Is this real diversity? Possibly not, but it is important nonetheless.

A second type of false diversity is the bureaucratic manifestation. Simon rails against "the corporate, controlling state" which uses diversity as "another stick with which to beat ... the ordinary man or woman going about an ordinary life. Another way to slice and parse the people."

It is true that bureaucracy turns diversity into a set of policies based on a set of profiles. But that's a problem with bureaucracy, not with the idea of diversity as such. One of the characteristics of bureaucracy is that it can take a living idea, however good or well-meaning, and turn it into something wooden. Trees produce sticks, but it's not the tree's fault if the stick is used as a weapon.

Social change driven by bureaucratic policies may be inauthentic and sometimes even unjust. But it may sometimes happen that this kind of change leads to a deeper, more authentic shift in social attitudes and behaviour. First we see token minorities and women in powerful positions, then we gradually start to think this is perfectly normal; a recent study showed that the British people have become much more tolerant of social diversity. That's not to say that the end ever justifies the means, but it is nonetheless true that authentic change can sometimes grow from inauthentic beginnings.

So we have three types of diversity here - imaginary (based on appearances), symbolic (based on conforming to some bureaucratic code, or what Simon calls "an artificial mediation of language") and real diversity (what Simon calls "a deeper variety"). Simon apparently thinks we can reject the first two and just have the third. But I don't think that's possible; in practice the three are all intertwined.

How are they linked? Well, that's a story for another day.

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